This might be the view of some of the towing associations and the operators they represent, but the honest Joes remain in the minority because the industry is unregulated. So the disreputable tow truck drivers do as they please - lying and conniving, feeding on shocked crash victims, bullying and effectively stealing vehicles, because they have nothing to fear.
Since anybody can buy a licence and get a truck (and vice versa), crash victims never know what they’re getting when assistance pulls up on the side of the road. So they either go with a “name”, the first driver at the scene, or - if they’re lucky enough to have insurance (more than 65 percent of drivers on our roads are uninsured) - they contact their insurer’s approved roadside assist.
Gift Karimireni maintains he was duped into using the services of A1 Assist - part of the Help 24 group - when he was involved in a crash in the Johannesburg CBD. Admitting fault, the other driver gave her insurance details to the beneficent tow truck driver, who whipped out his phone to call her insurer, MiWay, to authorise the tow. Only thing is - the “consultant” he spoke to was not from MiWay.
Accumulating storage costs
None the wiser, Gift and the other driver exchanged details and left his damaged vehicle with the tow truck operator.
“The so-called MiWay consultant authorised them to have the car towed away to Great South Auto Body, after she explained everything to her insurance company. To my surprise, the car was towed to A1 Assist’s yard - which was never agreed on and besides the car was drivable - but they told us they work with MiWay, hence any car that was involved in an accident should be towed and assessed before it’s driven again. I called Great South Auto to find out if my car was delivered there, but to my surprise it wasn’t.”
Two days later, he got a call from A1 Assist, asking when he would be fetching his car as it was accumulating storage costs. Which storage, Karimireni asked, because he wanted it towed to the panelbeater, not their yard? At that stage, the cost had escalated to R9500 (about the same as two nights’ stay at a five-star hotel in the V&A Waterfront).
Karimireni’s attempts to reach A1 Assist’s bosses failed so he went to the police.
“After a number of run-arounds from police station to police station (Johannesburg Central, Roodepoort and Sophiatown) in trying to get help in recovering my car, Captain Mphelane from Johannesburg Central police station called Dominic, the A1 tow truck driver to ask why the car was delivered to their yard in Roodepoort instead of the address on the slip. The driver said it was their company policy to deliver vehicles to their yard first for assessment before delivering it to the agreed address. That was bizarre because that policy was never communicated to me or written anywhere on the signed agreement.”
And the car was going nowhere until he’d paid for its luxury lodgings.
“It was clear that the agreement was never legit but a way of coercing me to sign with the intention of stealing my car. This, therefore, was more of theft of a motor vehicle by false pretence.”
Eventually, Sophiatown police got involved and with the mediation of a Colonel Mehlape, the tow fee was “knocked down” to R4000.
“I was so shocked and never imagined that we have such unscrupulous companies operating in this country and getting away with it without being brought to book. After some research, I came across an ocean of complaints against the same company on the internet but I felt it’s not enough to just complain without doing anything about it, hence I need your help to name and shame this unscrupulous company.”
I asked A1 to comment but they hadn’t responded by my deadline. It’s not the first run-in with this company and there are a myriad of complaints online.
Earlier in 2017 another reader, Johan Koen, effectively lost his car because he couldn’t pay their storage fees - despite the intervention of their towing association, SA Towing and Recovery Association and its recommendation that the cost, which had escalated to R25 000 by that stage, be knocked down to a more “reasonable” R4000. The Motoring Ombudsman ruled in favour of A1 Assist though - because he had signed the tow slip and negotiated a lower fee.
Unfair Business Practice
Nthabiseng Kulwane, from the Gauteng Consumer Affairs office, told me they will be serving A1 Assist with a “Section 8” notice in terms of their Unfair Business Practice Act 7 of 1996.
“The last time we tried, the environment was not really safe. Basically the Section 8 notice is a formal invitation inviting the respondent (A1 Assist) to come for a round-table discussion, wherein our office will be presenting its concerns with regard to complaints against them, and they will be afforded the opportunity to present their case. If the Section 8 meeting does not bear any fruits, our office will have to reconsider options.”
Ettienne Pel from Utasa told me: “We were in endless and almost useless engagements with the Gauteng Consumer Affairs office the last time they issued a Section 8 against the company, which informs them that an investigation is being launched against them. My understanding is that this is then gazetted too.
“As Utasa, we endeavour to assist consumers on a daily basis, especially against this company, but it is futile when nothing is being done from government, the custodian of the Consumer Protection Act.
"A1 Assist / Help24 is NOT an Utasa member.”
WISE UP - HERE'S HOW:
1 The towing industry is not regulated so there are no set rates for towing. The towing associations have agreed on preferential tow rates with their partners so it’s advisable to seek a truck that’s affiliated with the Natal Towing Association (0861682682), the United Towing Association of SA (0861188272), Satra (0861072872) and the like. Ensure the tow-truck operator displays his association’s (current) decal prominently so he is bound by a code of conduct to charge market-related prices.
2 Never sign blank documents at the crash scene (or anywhere else for that matter) because you’re effectively giving the operator carte blanche to charge as he pleases.
3 Insist that the rates be stipulated clearly, on the tow authorisation document, before the vehicle is towed.
4 Unless you’re incapacitated, never allow the tow-truck driver to call your insurer.
5 Know who your insurer is and prominently display "do not tow" stickers, if you have them. Make sure you know what your policy c0vers and what you’ll be liable for.
6 Ensure your vehicle is delivered to an insurance-approved repairer. If you’re not insured, get your vehicle back as soon as possible to prevent costs escalating.